Nova Scotia

New pet owners say cats from Halifax-area rescue fell sick soon after adoption

Some pet owners in Nova Scotia who adopted cats from the Bahamas through a Halifax-area animal rescue organization say their new felines soon developed serious health issues, problems that have led to expensive veterinarian bills and even death.

Cats diagnosed with often-fatal feline leukemia, leading to large veterinarian bills

These two kittens adopted by Sarrah Putwa from South Paw Conservation of Upper Tantallon, N.S., were later diagnosed with feline leukemia. (Sarrah Putwa)

Some pet owners in Nova Scotia who adopted cats from the Bahamas through a Halifax-area animal rescue organization say their new felines soon developed serious health issues, problems that have led to expensive veterinarian bills and even death.

Dalhousie University graduate student Sarrah Putwa said a pair of kittens she adopted in late February from South Paw Conservation quickly became sick and later tested positive for feline leukemia (FeLV), a highly contagious and often fatal retrovirus that infects cats.

"All I can think about is I'm going to lose them," Putwa said in an interview. "And I, like, cried and bawled my eyes out. And how much pain my cats have been experiencing all these days and I could do nothing about it."

Putwa is among five people interviewed by CBC News who say they adopted or were asked to foster cats from South Paw Conservation that were later diagnosed with FeLV. The Upper Tantallon, N.S., group works with a humane society in the Bahamas to bring rescue cats and dogs to Canada, adopting them out for a fee of around $280.

A Halifax veterinarian is calling for stricter rules around the health of animals that are adopted out. Dr. Katie O'Hanley, a veterinarian at North End Animal Hospital, said she regularly faces situations where owners say they were never told about their new pet's health condition, resulting in many unexpected expenses.

"I would say I see one a week, not from the same rescue, but just various rescues, various cats, dogs," she said.

O'Hanley said laws in the province around disclosing a pet's illness and providing proof of health are lax. Many people, she said, will see an advertisement that says a pet up for adoption has been checked and believe the organization is an authority on health and has regulations in place, but that's not always the case.

South Paw says cats checked

South Paw Conservation director Terri-Lyn Rhyno said in email the organization relies on the medical certificate provided by the Bahamas Humane Society and upon the veterinary advice, and that information is shared with the prospective adopter. Cats are screened for FeLV, if there are symptoms.

"The kittens adopted by Ms. Putwa had been certified healthy, had shown no signs of ill health subsequent to the arrival in Canada, when checked by the CFIA vet or prior to their adoption and consequently were not tested for feline leukemia or any other condition," Rhyno said in the email.

"Most importantly, Ms. Putwa did not ask whether and was not told that the kittens she wished to adopt had been tested for feline leukemia/did not have feline leukemia."

Some organizations do proactively test for feline leukemia. The Nova Scotia SPCA, for instance, tests all the cats it plans to adopt out for the virus.

Putwa signed a contract that said South Paw "makes no warranty" on a pet's health. Rhyno said the organization offered to have its veterinarian examine Putwa's cats or to take them back, but that South Paw cannot pay "lifelong vet bills for every animal we rescue."

"The volunteers at South Paw Conservation rescue animals out of compassion and a desire to help homeless animals who may otherwise be left without any care, live their lives in a small cage or euthanized at a shelter," Rhyno said.

"We do this in good faith with the best of the current information we have with limited funds to do so.  We are transparent with all prospective owners and if we are aware of any health concerns or known viral status, the prospective owners are informed."

Bahamian vet document

Putwa chose to adopt from South Paw Conservation after doing online research, but acknowledges the experience from the beginning made her uneasy.

"I get the veterinary papers, and she's like, this is all we have. They're like these crinkled up vet documents from the Bahamas," Putwa said.

Putwa said she was told her cats, which she named Chui and Habibi, were checked by a veterinarian in the Bahamas and again by one in Canada, although she was given no proof of the Canadian examination.

All personal pet dogs and domestic pet cats that are imported into Canada must undergo a documentary inspection by the Canada Border Services Agency to ensure the animal's rabies vaccination is current and the animal description matches.

The CBSA will also visually inspect the animal to ensure there are no visible signs of illness or injury, and may refer it to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for further examination.

According to Nova Scotia's Animal Protection Act, all sales of cats and dogs must come with a valid veterinary certificate of health, called a Schedule A form, which is printed from the Department of Agriculture website.

Kittens get sick

While Putwa's cats did come with a form signed by a veterinarian in the Bahamas, she did not receive a Schedule A form. However, she continued with the adoption.

She said things almost immediately took a turn for the worse when she brought the kittens home.

"It's just diarrhea from, like, Day 1," she said. "My understanding was stress causes diarrhea, so I waited for nearly 24 to 48 hours, which is when that's supposed to clear up. It did not."

After numerous visits to the vet and hundreds of dollars later Putwa was told by her vet that both cats were positive for feline leukemia virus.

Confused and heartbroken, Putwa said she reached out to South Paw for clarification and help. She was told South Paw would not pay for the cats' care. The group took down a post she made on the organization's Facebook page.

"I was shocked. I was like, if they're based on, like, transparency and care for animals, why would they hide my cat's medical issue? That was not the response I was expecting, that you would take down my post."

Other adopters

Putwa took to social media platforms Reddit and Facebook to voice her concerns and was contacted by others who said they also had bad experiences.

Sarah Abriel is one of them. She adopted a mother cat and its kitten from South Paw a year ago, and named them Chicky and Cheeto.

After several months, the health of both started declining and after a trip to her local vet, Abriel was told the pair had FeLV. The cats lived indoors at Abriel's home and were not in contact with other cats that could have transmitted the virus during that time.

Not long after receiving the diagnosis, Abriel had to put down the kitten, Cheeto.

"I made the appointment, and I had her euthanized Friday, July the 30th, and she was 10 months old, she had only been sick for 10 days," Abriel said.

Tiffany Bezanson also adopted from South Paw in February and was recently told by her veterinarian that her cat is positive for FeLV. She said her children have grown attached to their new cat, but has been told the animal likely only has about three more years to live.

"We might not even get the three years, right, and that's the hard part too, is having to go through this and watching a kitten suffer as they, you know, die from this disease, is going to be hard on everybody."

Putwa said she wants changes to the law, and is urging people to contact their MLAs to push them to "put stronger regulations in place to protect these animals and make sure that these rescues bringing in animals or even rescuing animals from Nova Scotia are testing them properly."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Feleshia Chandler is a journalist based in Halifax. She loves helping people tell their stories and has interests in issues surrounding LGBTQ+ people as well as Black, Indigenous and people of colour. You can reach her at feleshia.chandler@cbc.ca.

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